Washington: Mum’s the Word on Mexico City Mayor’s Desafuero

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  • On April 7, the Mexican congress announced its decision to remove the immunity of Mexico City’s leftist mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
  • By the end of April, the Attorney General’s office is supposed to issue a decision on whether he will prosecute López Obrador.
  • The April 11 meeting of the General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) to elect a new secretary-general produced an unexpected 17-17 tie between the Mexican and Chilean candidates, thus fusing the Mexican presidential election with the OAS race.
  • Washington may exact a high price for backing Mexican foreign minister Luis Ernesto Derbez to the OAS post and for attempting to scratch López Obrador from the presidential ballot.
  • On April 7, the Mexican congress voted to remove Mexico City’s left-of-center mayor, Andrés Manuel López Obrador from office, stripping him of the immunity from prosecution which is normally enjoyed by elected officials. The measure, which López Obrador’s supporters believe was directly orchestrated by President Vicente Fox, is a questionable political maneuver to eliminate the populist mayor’s chances of running for the presidency in 2006. The conflict continues to fuel an already precarious situation for Washington throughout Latin America: the reemergence of left-leaning governments and a contentious OAS secretary-general election, which up to now have eluded Washington’s control. As of today, no one really knows who will win the OAS tally, and it could be that any unannounced candidate will surface on May 2 and sweep the contest.

    Same Soup, Just Reheated: Fox Encourages a Return to PRI Authoritarianism
    The charismatic López Obrador, currently the most popular candidate in the presidential race, has attracted a strong following among the Mexican populace with his ambitious social and public works programs. Like many other Latin American leaders, he is an outspoken critic of globalization and free trade agreements, and his fiery rhetoric often echoes that of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez.

    While most Mexicans claim that the charges being brought against the beleaguered mayor are frivolous, and as polls consistently register him as the leading candidate to succeed President Fox, the incumbent maintains that the prosecution of López Obrador is essential to the upholding of Mexican law. López Obrador now faces felony charges of contempt of court for ignoring a 2001 order to halt a municipal construction project on a private hospital access road. Corruption scandals have also tainted the mayor’s credibility, with his chief operative being recorded on video footage accepting bribes from a wealthy businessperson (“Opposition Chief at Risk in Mexico,” New York Times, April 8). During his public testimony last Thursday, López Obrador staunchly defended himself, claiming that he had broken no laws. He added that, if convicted, he would not seek bail and would conduct his presidential campaign from behind bars. Under Mexican law, a candidate facing charges cannot run for the presidency.

    Critics contend that Fox’s attempt to remove López Obrador from the presidential race is a cunning ploy to boost the electoral prospects of his protégé, interior minister Santiago Creel, in the 2006 election. López Obrador argues that Fox’s conservative National Action Party (PAN) and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)—Mexico’s most dominant political party until Fox’s electoral triumph in 2000—have forged a functioning alliance aimed at hampering the growing popularity of his left-of-center Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). Of the 360 legislators who voted to lift López Obrador’s immunity, all of the PAN members voted in favor of the motion, with all but 12 PRI members voting in favor as well. Both the PAN and the PRI constitute the two largest blocs within the 500-member chamber of congress.

    López Obrador and Fox have been exchanging jabs ever since Fox’s inception as president. López Obrador has accused Fox of hypocrisy in the past, citing the latter’s promise to end the use of congressional power as a tool for disrupting democratic processes. The Mexico City mayor further claims that the PAN and PRI are presently using these same measures to eliminate groups vying for a spot in next year’s presidential elections.

    López Obrador’s critics argue that he is purposefully turning himself into a political martyr. Hours before the vote took place in the legislature, the mayor addressed his multitude of supporters and implored them in a defiant tone not to subject themselves to the traps set by his “authoritarian era” opponents. Others maintain that López Obrador’s social programs are winning him many votes among the poor and middle class, but only at the expense of Mexico’s long-term economic health and stability. López Obrador counters that the expenditures for his social programs will help bridge the widening gap between Mexico’s rich and poor.

    Blows to the Left: The Future of Latin America Uncertain
    The April 11 meeting of the OAS’s General Assembly to elect a new secretary-general had an unexpected ending. In what was widely seen at the time as being the occasion of an easy victory for the Chilean José Miguel Insulza, the surprising withdrawal of the U.S.-backed candidate, former Salvadoran president Francisco Flores, complicated matters. The sudden change of events allowed Mexican foreign minister Luis Ernesto Derbez to seek the necessary votes among the Central American and CARICOM delegations needed in order to tie Insulza. After five rounds of a tied vote between Insulza and Derbez at 17 apiece, the election was postponed to May 2, making it the closest balloting in OAS history. While both surviving candidates appear determined to remain in the fight, it is now being rumored that the upcoming election will boast some new faces that may be able to chip away at Insulza’s popular backing: the Peruvian foreign minister Manuel Rodríguez and Panamanian former president Arístides Arroyo, at the present moment, are slated to join the OAS race.

    The myriad challenges to López Obrador and Insulza, both recognized leftists throughout the region, proves that the conservative circles in the hemisphere—namely the U.S. and its dependants like El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala—are unwilling to yield to the advance of progressive ideals now sweeping across much of South America. In the next several weeks the Attorney General’s office will determine if López Obrador should stand trial; if found guilty, he would have to wave off his presidential aspirations. Meanwhile, Insulza, who has had to bear the brunt of the Bush administration’s doubts on his leadership capabilities, continues to wait impatiently, as a victory in the OAS tally no longer appears to be a sure thing. As these developments continue to unfold, one can expect that the next three weeks will be characterized by energetic negotiations and a growing political intensity throughout much of the hemisphere.

    Mum’s the Word
    Why has the White House remained tight-lipped up to this point concerning the López Obrador proceedings? Perhaps the silence is indicative of the conundrum confronting the Bush administration. As the self-professed defender of free-world democracy, Washington must recognize that the nature of the desafuero against López Obrador is highly suspicious and has undoubtedly called into question the legitimacy of Mexico’s democratic principles. However, if Washington were to express its criticism, it must do so very cautiously. As of now, Roger Noriega is seeking to block the Insulza candidacy because he fears that, if victorious, the Chilean’s strong personality will lead him to transform the OAS position into an independent and free standing source of executive energy. Furthermore, the Bush administration would be ill-advised to intervene in this debacle when considering that Mexico’s backlash over the travel alert issued by the State Department in January, as well as the limited progress achieved by the U.S. and Mexico at the recent North American Summit, has soured relations between the two neighbors. As long as Washington plays its cards wisely, realizing that any stance it takes could inadvertently make its worst nightmare come true—namely the rising tide of left-leaning governments in Latin America—the Bush administration’s silence, for once, within the hemisphere could prove to be a very sound piece of advice.